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And the Search for a Proper Memorial

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The Search for a Proper Memorial

The year-long endeavor to find a fitting final resting place for James Smithson began on a small scale early in 1904 but soon broadened considerably when the Smithsonian Board of Regents formally recommended that Congress fund the memorial. Secretary Samuel Pierpont Langley was directed to contact renowned artists to prepare designs for monuments. However, Langley was not alone in his search; a few members of the Board of Regents had also begun to solicit designs from artists and architects. Proposals were received, reviewed, and dismissed, one by one throughout the year.

The scale of the designs varied greatly, from grand to modest as it became increasingly clear that Congress was reluctant to fund the project. The reputations and skills of the designers were as dissimilar as the designs; some were only locally known, while others were nationally prominent. The artists contacted were Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the most prominent American sculptor of the day, his brother Louis Saint-Gaudens, and Gutzon Borglum, a young New York artist who later created the Mount Rushmore Memorial. The list of architects included the Washington D.C. architectural firm of Totten & Rogers, New York architect Henry Bacon, designer of the Lincoln Memorial, and Hornblower & Marshall, the Washington firm employed at the time by the Smithsonian in the planning of the Natural History Museum.

Plan for Smithson's Memorial by Totten & Rogers, 1904

Plan for Smithson's Memorial by Totten & Rogers, 1904.
SI neg # 89-8544

Plan for Smithson's Memorial by Totten & Rogers, 1904

Plan for Smithson's Memorial by Totten & Rogers, 1904. SI neg # 89-8534.
SI neg # 89-8544

At the request of Smithsonian Regent, John B. Henderson, the architectural firm of Totten & Rogers submitted two plans for monumental tombs. The first, seen on the left, no doubt, drew its inspiration from both the ancient Greek Mausoleum at Halicanarsus and Grants Tomb in New York, built in 1897.

Hope for congressional funding began to evaporate when Langley was notified that:

"the condition of the legislation in Congress... satisfies me that no appropriation [for the Smithson Monument] can be hoped for at the present session."

The Totten & Rogers plans were abandoned and other less grand designs sought.

Plan for Smithson's Memorial by Totten & Rogers, 1904

Design for Smithson's Memorial by Henry Bacon, dated April 29, 1904 SI neg # 90-16191

Plan for Smithson's Memorial by Totten & Rogers, 1904

Design for Smithson's Memorial by Henry Bacon, dated May 4, 1904 SI neg # 90-16192

Henry Bacon submitted two plans for modest garden structures. His first design was a pergola (left), an open pavilion which consisted of a "platform, pedestal, columns and lintels over the columns" to be executed in Pentellic marble with gilded bronze rafters spanning the lintels.

The second was an excedra (right), or semi-circular stone bench of classical derivation which was to have a vault underneath to hold Smithson's remains with an inscription on the pavement above.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens' brother Louis was to provide the sculptural elements for both of these monuments.

Plan for Smithson's Memorial by Totten & Rogers, 1904

Design for Smithson's Memorial by Gutson De La Mothe Borglum, 1904, Bronzed Plaster, National Museum of American Art, Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, Smithsonian Institution.

Plan for Smithson's Memorial by Totten & Rogers, 1904

Artist's conception of Gutson Borglum's Borglum's plan for Smithson's Memorial in the South Tower Room.

Gutzon Borglum also sent two proposals to the Smithsonian. The first, a sculpture of a seated Smithson contemplating a mineral (presumably Smithsonite), was to rest atop an underground vault located in front of the building. It was to be "heroic" in size and sit on a white marble base over five feet high.

The second design involved remodeling the south tower room inside the Smithsonian Building to house the Italian grave marker and plaque. Borglum's drawing of this plan has been lost but his written description survives which provided the basis for an artist's conception (right). It shows the grave marker flanked by four Corinthian columns supporting a vaulted ceiling. The original plaque from the grave site and a second similar plaque were to be located at the back of the room.

Plan for Smithson's Memorial by Totten & Rogers, 1904

Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens

Plan for Smithson's Memorial by Totten & Rogers, 1904

The Syrian Sarcophagus visible to the right of the north entrance of the Arts & Industries Building, ca. 1898. Castle Collection Postcard, SI.2001.004

Two informal suggestions were made by board members for yet smaller monuments. The first was to copy the small circular tholos-like Choragic Monument to Lysicrates in Athens. One board member dismissed the idea as being far too modest saying:

"If Athens could give this to the leader of a theatrical chorus or band master, I think we might double the size at least for Smithson."

The second idea was to reuse the so-called "Syrian" sarcophagus (a gift to the United States in 1839 by Jesse Duncan Elliot, Commodore Chief of the U.S. Navy in the Mediterranean) which then stood in front of the National Museum Building (A&I). This proposal was also removed from consideration.

Go to "Smithson's Crypt"

This exhibit is based on an unpublished paper: "Smithson's Personal Effects, Proposed Memorial, and Crypt," by Richard E. Stamm, Smithsonian Institution, 1995.

© Smithsonian Institution, 2008